Complexity Viewpoint: A Valuable Approach for Sustainable Elephant Conservation

This piece was written for Lewis & Clark’s Emerging Topics in Animal Law course. All views expressed are those of the author.


By Kathleen Ryan


This Blog explores the efforts for conservation of a small, iconic, “desert-adapted” elephant population in the Gourma region of central Mali spearheaded by the Mali Elephant Project, an initiative of WILD Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada (Project).[1] Underlying the Project is a conservation trend that recognizes that the human dimension is vital to understanding conservation outcomes, particularly the need to safeguard human rights, implement social safeguards, and incorporate local communities and indigenous people.[2]

Based on initial studies from 2003 to 2006, the Project recognized that it was critical to understand the challenges the elephants faced as they migrate over 32,000 square kilometers.[3] Although the problems could be viewed as separate issues, i.e., food, water and the need to avoid humans, the study showed that it was better to view the elephant migration in “context,” i.e., linking natural and human environments and understanding that developments in one part of the system would create impacts elsewhere.[4] It was clear that encroachment of humans threatened the survival of the herd due to disruption of migration routes and degraded, frayed habitats. If these problems continued, there would be increased elephant-human conflict, stress and mortality until the population decreased to the point of being not viable or was decimated by drought or poaching.[5] Thus, the goal was to understand that the threats to the elephants were the result of a system of interconnected relationships between the people and the living and non-living environment - the social and ecological system.[6]

Given the complexity of the problems, it was clear that the typical “top-down” conservation approach with targets and plans to satisfy funders and agencies would not work. Recognizing that problems would never be fully understood though predictable cause-and-effect relationships, which theoretically could be controlled, the Project used “principles of complexity theory,” which recognizes that uncertainty exists wherever there are relationships with interacting components that also affect and at the same time are shaped by the wider system.[7] Once the threats were understood through the complexity viewpoint, the goal was to devise interventions that incorporated key features of interconnectedness, including “people, relationships, organizations and institutions, policies and law, and attitudes or aspects of culture and traditions.”[8] Although the Project did not begin as a community-based program, the feature emerged over time with the adaptive perspective as the guide. Thus, the inclusion of disparate communities was important to understanding the pressure points in each community while diminishing threats.[9]

The community-based approach began with a series of workshops that included a broad group of people with perceived stakes, including tribal and elected community leaders, government bodies and representative NGOs.[10] Rather than telling the participants that the elephants had international and national value, which might have been the expected conclusion in a “top-down” approach, the Project presented its research and asked the participants a series of questions: whether they thought the results were correct; what did they have, if anything, to add; what they considered the problems to be; what solutions they would propose.[11] The results of this inclusive exercise were the basis for critical “new knowledge” that combined the Project’s scientific research with valued local knowledge.[12]

This “new knowledge” showed that a large majority of local people (82%) did not want the elephants to disappear. They realized that elephant subsistence was linked to their own subsistence. Based on the community sentiment that clearly valued the elephants, the Project decided to develop outreach materials and initiatives to create a shared vision upon which to build future interventions.[13]

As mentioned above, the “complexity viewpoint” anticipates uncertainty and issues that arise from different interacting components. Such an issue, really a crisis, arose for the Project in 2009 when huge herds of cattle came to Lake Banzena, the only source of water accessible to the elephants during the dry season and threatened to drain the lake.[14]

To understand the threat, the Project did not rely on the traditional model of detailed planning and targets according to specific templates that often distort conservation management into oversimplification and standardization. Indeed, if they had, they would have relied on the assumption that the increased cattle using the lake was linked to the increase of people living near the lake. Rather than relying on the obvious assumption, the Project undertook a series of actions to gain a deep understanding of the situation, including conducting a comprehensive survey utilizing a local team skilled in social survey and facilitation who possessed local knowledge.[15] Based on connections made in conducting the earlier workshops, the Project was fortunate to have the help of a social anthropologist who also was the son of a respected local chief.[16]

The efforts yielded surprising results that proved valuable in framing a strategy. First, the cattle did not even belong to anyone in the local community.[17] Rather, they belonged to wealthy people in distant cities who were exploiting and degrading local resources, including wood, wild foods, and lake waters.[18] Second, local communities suffered from high incidence of water-borne disease leading to another surprise: the population would be happy to relocate out of the elephant range to an area with suitable pasture and clean borehole water.[19] Finally, the Project discovered that due to the relationships among three clans, three separate boreholes would be required to avoid social conflict.[20]

The survey also revealed that the environmental degradation stemmed from the lack of sustainable resource management. Rather than working together, the different clans focused on their own systems without respect for the others’ resources. This resulted in a “tragedy of commons,” where shared resources were depleted due to independent, self-interested actions among the clans that negatively impacted the common good.[21]

Using the survey results as a focal point, the Project addressed common goals and challenges that impacted the daily lives of all stakeholders, such as the need for clean water and the relationships with the elephants. These open discussions created a sense of unity, bolstered by the goals of transparency and equitable solutions.[22] Such solutions were based on traditional governance systems with the election a committee that established the rules of resource use (elephant habitat and migration routes) as well as the creation of the “ecoguards,” a group of young people chosen based on qualities identified by the community.[23]

The rules established by the committee - comprised of clan elders from all social groups -coupled with the ecoguards, provided a synergy of information for resource management and protection of elephant habitat. In complexity viewpoint, these systems provided feedback needed to achieve the goals of resource management and protection of elephant habitat. These goals were further supported by (1) the decentralized legal framework, which transferred resource management from the central government to local communities; and (2) the success of the ecoguards who managed resources by planting trees and mitigating fire hazards.[24] The Project supported and helped the largely illiterate rural communities draft the required “conventions” so that all communities could participate in the process.[25]

The results were a model that delivered tangible benefits to the communities: more pasture and farmland, which yielded revenues that were shared equally among the management, ecoguards and women.[26] Other benefits included healthier livestock, protection of valuable farmland from fire, selling hay and access rights to the owners of the large cattle herds that previously depleted resources without compensation to the local communities.[27]

Over time, the communities became the leaders of the Project and the beneficiaries of the Project. When civil war broke out in 2012, the commitment of the communities sustained the conservation efforts even when faced with a separatist rebellion, extremist insurgencies and the ensuing lawlessness and flood of weapons and emergence of elephant poaching.[28] The Project once again faced the situation in a familiar way: starting with information gathered through community meetings; exploring shared community experiences; and, including key interested parties.[29] The concerns had changed and were now centered on inability to access grain, as vehicles were being highjacked, and the conscription of youth into the armed insurgent groups.[30] The community elders now issued “edicts” declaring a social norm that poachers were thieves, stealing from the community, which was a source of great shame. The Project also employed the ecoguards, who were paid a small “recognition payment” to report on elephant location, detect poaching, identify the perpetrators, and protect natural resources.[31] In addition to the benefits of these actions, none of the ecoguards, who enjoyed local respect, joined the armed insurgents even though they would have been paid better.[32]

This system held for a few years, but eventually the situation worsened and the ecoguards requested armed support. The Project secured an armed “ranger - military” antipoaching unit, chosen because its values aligned with the Project’s: namely, a whole-system approach that gathered information needed to better understand the context, avoid danger, and act while respecting and supporting the local populations.[33]

Despite the civil war and after much effort, at this point, the Project is on the verge of expanding the protected area in the Gourma to be one of the largest in Africa at some 12 million acres. It has taken the team 15 years to do so, working with all levels of governance and assuring that local communities are both leading and benefitting.[34] That said, the Project will likely continue to be challenged. Since early 2022, Wagner, a shadowy Russian group of mercenaries, have arrived in Mali.[35] In addition, mercenaries enlisted to counter rebels since 2018 reportedly have abducted and killed people,[36] including people working with the Project, which has experienced an assassination and an execution of its team members, plus multiple robberies.[37]

Nevertheless, the Mali case study may serve as a blueprint for other elephant conservation efforts such as two case studies, both in Malaysia.[38] The concerns were similar to the Mali Project’s, namely, destruction and degradation of forest, habitat fragmentation and restrictions placed to guard against elephant crop raiding such as electric fences, which contributed to locally high elephant densities.[39] Without detailing the goals and features of the projects, the Malaysian Federal Government is working with a wide range of stakeholders, including local communities as with the Mali Project, to develop a plan for ecological linkage. This is encouraging because many threats to elephant subsistence have common elements of habitat loss, human encroachment, fragmented migration paths, poaching and human conflict. Thus, it is possible that the complexity viewpoint employed in the Mali Project can be useful in protecting local elephant herds while benefitting local communities in other locations.


[1] S.M. Canney, (2021) Making Space for Nature: Elephant Conservation in Mali as a Case Study in Sustainability, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 63:2, 4-15, DOI: 10.1080/00139157.2021.1871292.

[2] Canney 2021 at 4 (citing Berkes, J. Colding, and C. Folke, “Rediscovery of Ecological Knowledge as Adaptive Management,” Ecological Applications 10, no. 5 (2000): 1251–52).

[3] Id., see also S.M. Canney, K. Lindsey, E. Hema, I. Douglas-Hamilton, V. Martin (December 2007) The Mali elephant initiative: synthesis of knowledge, research and recommendations about the population, its range and the threats to the elephants of the Gourma (reporting on Phase One from 2003-2006)

[4] S.M. Canney 2021 at 5 (citing The Mali Elephant Project: protecting elephants amidst conflict and poverty,” International Zoo Yearbook 53 (2019): 1–15, doi:10.1111/izy.12236).

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 6 (once the threats were understood, the Project then devised interventions that could shift the relationship patterns).

[7] 5 (citing S. L. Mahajan, L. Glew, E. Rieder, et al., “Systems Thinking for Planning and Evaluating Conservation Interventions,” Conservation, Science and Practice 1 (2019): e44,

[8] Id. at 6.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 7.

[12] Id.

[13] 7 (examples of outreach efforts and initiatives include leaflets for literate public, school programs on living with elephants, promulgating a Tourist Code of Conduct; re-siting a development plan that planned to clear important elephant forest; working with official planning department to incorporate elephant migration routes into local structure plans; stopping a cement quarry in important elephant habitat).

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 8. The survey included people living around the lake, migratory herders, government, and local project representatives.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 9 (finding 96% of the cattle using the lake didn’t belong to local people).

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 9 (citing N. Ganame, B. Bah, A. Maiga, and S. M. Canney, Study on the Liberation From Human and Livestock Pressure of Lake Banzena in the Gourma of Mali (Boulder, CO: WILD Foundation, 2009)).

[21] Id. at 9 (citing G. Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162, no. 3859 (1968): 1243–48).

[22] Id. at 9.

[23] Id. at 10.

[24] Id. at 10.

[25] Id. at 11.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id., see also S.M. Canney, “The Mali Elephant Project: protecting elephants amidst conflict and poverty,” International Zoo Yearbook 53 (2019): 1-15, doi:10.1111/izy.12236.

[29] Id.

[30] Id. (grain was delivered piecemeal using donkey carts to avoid hijack).

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id. (according to discussion with Vance Martin, Executive Director of the Wild Foundation (V. Martin), the U.N has nearly 15,000 peacekeepers in Mali, which is considered the most dangerous deployment on Earth).

[34] Discussion with V. Martin, January 2022.

[35] D. Paquette, Russian mercenaries have landed in West Africa, pushing Putin’s goals as Kremlin is increasingly isolated, Washington Post, March 9, 2022 (After news broke last fall that Mali was considering a deal with Wagner, Western and regional leaders sounded the diplomatic alarm: Wagner is known to be more motivated by mineral wealth and other strategic assets than restoring peace).

[36] Id.

[37] Discussion with V. Martin.

[38] S.M. Canney, Human-elephant co-existence: managing conflicts,

(July 30, 2021) Wild Foundation

[39] Id.


Kathleen Ryan